Jekyll and Hyde
Leeds United have not lost a Premier League game from a leading position since their trip to Tottenham Hotspur on the last weekend before the World Cup break. That afternoon in the capital was a chaotic, frantic affair synonymous with so many games during Jesse Marsch’s tenure.
That game ebbed and flowed before the implosion which took Leeds from leading 3-2 in the 76th minute to trailing it 4-3 seven minutes later. It was the kind of collapse fans hoped they would not see topped in 2022/23 and yet it was only the tame precursor to what played out on Sunday afternoon.
This was an afternoon of Jekyll and Hyde proportions. It was the archetypal tale of two halves, except Jekyll was limited to one goal while Hyde abandoned all common sense, resilience and the ability to tackle an opponent.
If someone had told you, after 44 minutes and virtually halfway through the match, Leeds, with a vice-like grip on proceedings, would collapse from 1-0 up to 3-1 down within 11 minutes, you would have told them to slow down on the hallucinogenic chocolate. Bookmakers would have given you hundreds, if not thousands, to one on Crystal Palace scoring three goals across those 10 minutes, especially with a half-time chance for Leeds to reset in the middle of it.
The odds on a 5-1 Palace hiding in the 44th minute would have been astronomical for a United win, let alone for a Roy Hodgson reverse before full-time. Even with more than 12 hours to process the game, it is staggering to believe that was the same set of players in white serving up such contrasting passages of football.
The confidence, as shown at Tottenham, was brittle yesterday. Leeds, for whatever reason, could not deal with that Palace equaliser against the run of play. It simply did not compute, United malfunctioned and could not stop the flow once they started shipping water.
It had been shaping up to be one of the most complete halves of the season for Leeds. Everyone on the field seemed to be pulling their weight and doing their job expertly. The seven shots on target across the first half alone summed up how well they were cutting through the visitors and testing Sam Johnstone.
The Palace stopper seemed to be only delaying the inevitable, or at least that was how it felt watching the confidence and efficiency of Leeds pour forward. Javi Gracia’s side would eventually find the second and third goals their dominance deserved, it was just a matter of time.
And yet those saves would prove to be the foundation for United’s collapse. Leeds didn’t get the daylight they all knew their play deserved and as soon as Palace drew level, effectively rendering all of the hosts’ excellent play null and void, they crumbled.
Johnstone had kept a miserable, poor, blunt Palace in the game for long enough to see the tide turn. Leeds need to forget this afternoon ever happened, and fast.
If there are any lingering doubts about Sunday’s events they are sure to play their part when Leeds find themselves in similar situations moving forward. They have to forgive themselves and forget or the shellshock is going to derail their survival fight.
Gracia’s first slip
The defeats to Chelsea and Arsenal were justified as away trips to expensively-assembled, heavy favourites. In neither of those games did Gracia or Leeds disgrace themselves either. There were some redeeming moments in each of those losses.
None of that applied yesterday. This was a home game against a team with one win in 13 games under the stewardship of a 75-year-old their ownership considered finished at the highest level in 2021.
What’s more, they had said strugglers on the ropes at virtually the halfway mark. Gracia’s progress and positive points are not forgotten about after one heavy defeat, but he has to swallow his share of the blame in this inexplicable collapse.
Gracia said his half-time message, the critical juncture in the game where Leeds could possibly have been saved from themselves, was to “improve the things that, in the first half, we didn't do well, like try to defend better set-pieces, corner kicks, free-kicks, to be more solid in that action.
“To keep doing the things we did really well in the first half because, in the first half, we were solid defending, we were in good distances to defend, being compact, creating chances, many shots, many shots on target.”
That message, however it was delivered, did not work. Gracia and his backroom team will need to revisit how they handled that half-time pause and do things differently next time.
Could the substitutions have been handled any differently? The second and third goals went in so quickly, Gracia acted as quickly as he feasibly could, while at half-time, before Palace took the lead, Leeds were yet to reveal the fragility ahead.
The choices Gracia makes with his starting line-up against Liverpool, in a week’s time, will be a very telling sign of what he learned from yesterday’s disastrous collapse.
A tale of contrasting weeks
Marc Roca arrived on Tuesday night. After a campaign of ups and downs, his dominant turn in the Nottingham Forest win felt like a statement, a definitive line in the sand on his Leeds career. The pre and post-Forest Marc Roca.
It would be hard to find a more drastic falling off the form cliff at Leeds this season. Like everyone else, Roca began the game well with a repeat of his combative, committed presence in the centre of the field, dovetailing with Weston McKennie.
Unfortunately, Roca would come to define the team’s meltdown. All of that boisterous, keen energy translated into naive positioning and poor judgement. On eight separate occasions, Roca would fail to stop Palace players from dribbling by him like he wasn’t there, in one of the most important parts of the pitch.
Unlike Roca, Luke Ayling did not shine especially brightly on Tuesday night, but he did put up similarly poor statistics in yesterday’s debacle. Just 57 per cent of Ayling’s passes found team-mates at Elland Road, while he was dribbled past on six occasions with only three of his nine attempted tackles successful in winning the ball back.
That is now five consecutive matches where Ayling has struggled at right-back for Leeds. Rasmus Kristensen may not be pulling up too many trees, least of all when he’s shoehorned in at left-back, but such an extended period of poor performances cannot be helping Ayling’s mental state.
Time out of the firing line is no bad thing.
Cooper ignored and Forshaw returns
Given how little Gracia is giving away in press conferences on fitness matters, we have to assume Liam Cooper remains in good shape on the Leeds bench. The club captain is yet to appear for the Whites under Gracia and yesterday seemed to provide the ideal opportunity.
With Junior Firpo cautioned and fresh from a spell of treatment on the pitch, the left-back was withdrawn by Gracia. However, rather than push Pascal Struijk out to a position he knows well and the club skipper into his best position, the head coach shoehorned right-back Kristensen into the wrong side of defence.
Like most things in the second half, it did not work at all. Time and time again, Kristensen was exposed by Michael Olise and Palace’s attacks down that flank. No matter what doubts Gracia had about Struijk’s ability to deal with Olise, the Dutchman’s still a better fit than the Dane on that side of the field.
The choice to overlook Cooper again was odd and worth monitoring in the coming games. Meanwhile, Adam Forshaw returned to the matchday squad with no prior warning.
Gracia’s reluctance to get into any meaningful injury updates ensured everyone outside the team was in the dark until Forshaw arrived with the squad at Elland Road. The 31-year-old now has eight matches to prove he’s worth a contract extension or, more realistically, worthy of a deal further afield from this summer.
A massive opportunity missed
The upshot of yesterday’s mystifying misery is Leeds remain knee-deep in the mire when they could have feasibly had one foot in next season’s top flight. Twelfth place and five points clear of the drop zone would have felt like a major weight lifting from United shoulders.
As it is, they still need the two wins which should be enough to keep them out of trouble by the time May’s in its final knockings. A vital week, which even the biggest optimists said Leeds needed a minimum of four points from, has passed by with just the three taken from Tuesday.
It means the pressure and anxiety of the week just gone passes to a virtually identical scenario at the end of this month. In another night under the Elland Road lights it will be second-bottom Leicester City before the long poke to 15th-place Bournemouth on the following Sunday.
The sanctuary of last week’s Elland Road double-header is what Leeds will see as the missed opportunity. Leicester on home turf is one thing, but the 212 miles to Dean Court is quite another.
Liverpool and Fulham could always prove to be the routes to those six points needed, of course, but the league table would suggest that’s a tall order. If those six points don’t come from them or that Leicester-Bournemouth double-header, it promises to be a horrendously tense finale for the Whites.
Manchester City away and Newcastle United at home say nothing more than zero points before the final away game of the season at struggling West Ham United. Tottenham, with Harry Kane possibly in his last Spurs game, visit Leeds on the final day.
United are not out of opportunities, but Sunday was the shock they did not need at the end of what looked like the ticket to survival.